Mary Darby, Mrs Thomas Robinson 'Perdita' (1758 - 1800)

On display in:

Fountain Lobby

Order image © All images subject to copyright

Artist or maker

Gainsborough, Thomas (b.1727, d.1788)



dated by probably sitting

Place of production

  • London, England, United Kingdom


  • oil on canvas

Type of object

  • paintings

Accession number


At the height of his London career, Thomas Gainsborough painted this bust portrait probably in preparation for a larger full-length version, now in the Wallace Collection, London. There is also a sketch in the Royal Collection at Windsor. It is a good example of his late style where he used very fluid paint in a free manner to capture a sitter's likeness.


Gainsborough planned to exhibit the full-length painting at the Royal Academy of 1782, along with portraits of Mrs Robinson's former lover the Prince of Wales and her later admirer Colonel Tarleton. It did not appear, perhaps because it was judged a failure by the 'Public Advertiser' newspaper.

The actress Mary Darby came from a modest Bristol background and secretly married Thomas Robinson in 1774. She first appeared on the London stage as Juliet at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1776. She became very famous, particularly for her portrayal as Perdita in 'The Winter's Tale' in December 1779 when she caught the attention of the 17 year-old Prince of Wales, becoming his first mistress. George wrote her many compromising love letters in which he promised her wealth and a property of her own if she would leave her husband and give up acting. Mrs Robinson accepted his offer. However by the end of 1780, the Prince took a new mistress, Elizabeth Armistead. Angry and burdened with debts, Mrs Robinson spent the following eight months trying to persuade the Prince to honour his promises, taunting him and Armistead with abusive paragraphs in the newspapers and threatening to publish his letters. The monarchy could not ignore such a scandal. In July and August 1781, the Prince negotiated with her and agreed to give her a lump sum of £5,000 and the promise of an annuity if she returned the letters.

This portrait was probably made during the sittings recorded on 25 August 1781. Later in the year, Gainsborough painted the full-length version sited outside and with different colours in the dress. He probably used this portrait to help him with the larger portrait. Both portraits were owned by Mrs Robinson. They were probably commissioned by her as part of the campaign to rebuke the Prince of Wales for abandoning her. In the full-length version, she holds a miniature of the Prince which acts as a forceful reminder that he has broken the promises he has made, including his vow of eternal love in response to her beauty. Even in the bust length version, Perdita is shown with lidded eyes, designed to give her an enticing appearance reflecting her position as the Prince's former mistress.

Phillippa Plock, 2011

Physical description

Dimensions (mm) / weight (mg)

762 x 641 (sight size)

Signature & date

not signed or dated



  • Owned by Mrs Robinson (Perdita) (b.1758, d.1800); given by Mrs Robinson to Isaac Espinasse (b.1758, d.1834); by descent to his grandson Isaac Espinasse (b.1829); sold by Isaac Espinasse to Mr Knowles in or after 1868; acquired by Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd in 1872; bought from Agnew's by Robert Hemming; bought back by Agnew's from Robert Hemming; bought from Agnew's by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (b.1839, d.1898) 23 July 1885 for £4,620, stock no. 3705; given by Ferdinand to his sister Baroness Mathilde de Rothschild (b.1832, d.1924); by descent to her grandson James de Rothschild (b.1878, d.1957); bequeathed to Waddesdon The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust) in 1957.

Exhibition history

  • 'National Portraits', South Kensington, London, 1868, no. 828 lent by Isaac Espinasse


  • Waddesdon (National Trust)
  • Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957


  • William T. Whitley; Thomas Gainsborough; London; Smith, Elder; 1915; pp. 178-84
  • Ellis Waterhouse; Gainsborough; London; Edward Hulton Limited; 1958; no. 581
  • Ellis Waterhouse, Anthony Blunt; Paintings: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; Fribourg; Office du Livre, The National Trust; 1967; pp. 46-47, cat. no. 9
  • John Ingamells; Wallace Collection Monographs I - Mrs Robinson and her Portraits; London; The Trustees of the Wallace Collection (London); 1978; p. 20, ill.
  • Richard Holmes; Coleridge: Early Visions; London; Hodder and Stoughton; 1989; p. 252, ill.
  • M J Levy, Gainsborough's "Mrs Robinson": A Portrait and its Context, Apollo, 136, 1992, 152-55; pp. 152-53, fig. 1; with incorrect caption, links to 1781 sitting
  • Sarah Gristwood; Perdita; London; Transworld Publishers; 2005; pl. 13

Related files

Other details

Subject person

  • Mrs Mary Robinson (Perdita), Sitter